A Progressive Marriage

2014-07-30 16.04.03

How is your marriage progressing?

This simple question is a way of focusing our attention on right-thinking about progress and the Christian life. I posed the question to myself – I have been married now for 47 years. My first thought was, “What would ‘progress’ in a marriage mean?” Do I love my wife more, or any less? What would more love look like?

The truth of marriage is that progress is not the right measuring stick. The word “progress” originally referred to travel on a journey. Progress means to travel further. Thus the “Pilgrim’s Progress” really only means “the Pilgrim’s Journey.” If marriage is a journey, it is mostly measured by finishing the course. In that sense, 47 years is a lot of progress, and I pray the journey has only just begun.

The image of progress permeates our culture. It’s not an ancient idea, indeed, it is pretty much synonymous with modernity. It is probably one of the three most dominant ideas of our culture.  So how is it that we are able to bear being married without “making progress?”

We bear being married because it is satisfying, in one manner or another. My parents were married for over 60 years in a relationship that was likely as satisfying to both as being themselves was to each. That is to say, the problems I observed them endure were primarily the problems inherent to being themselves and would have been problems no matter how they lived nor with whom they lived.

My father engaged his working life in the same manner as his marriage. One year was perhaps different from another, as every day is from another. But when he retired, it was from the same work (auto mechanic) that he had done for his entire adult life.

For most of human history, it would seem, we lived without progress. There was little difference between the flint spear-point of 100,000 B.C. and 10,000 B.C. People lived and died, enjoyed good days and endured the bad. Of course, somewhere along the line, human beings made certain discoveries that brought greater wealth and improved technology. It has allowed us to succeed as a population and fill the world.

But, like marriage, the living of a human life has not and does not change. The illusion of progress arises by the things we choose to measure. If acquiring wealth is progress, then it is obvious that some people and some civilizations make progress. But one can still only live with wealth. And, like marriage, that living can only be done a moment at a time. The same can be said with regard to technology.

My small point here is that life itself is like a marriage. It is not something that can be described by the idea of progress. Life is “a progress,” a journey. But the end of the journey is as inevitable as ever and differs in no way from that of the meanest of cavemen.

I suppose the right question is “how is your life?” To know the true measures with which to answer that question is to know how to live.

About Fr. Stephen Freeman

Fr. Stephen is a retired Archpriest of the Orthodox Church in America, Pastor Emeritus of St. Anne Orthodox Church in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. He is also author of Everywhere Present: Christianity in a One-Storey Universe, and Face to Face: Knowing God Beyond Our Shame, as well as the Glory to God podcast series on Ancient Faith Radio.



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21 responses to “A Progressive Marriage”

  1. Mark Spurlock Avatar
    Mark Spurlock

    “[T]he problems…were primarily the problems inherent to being themselves and would have been problems no matter how they lived nor with whom they lived.”

    I believe it very likely that this realization is a part of all marriages (and perhaps relationships) that endure. A hopeful consequence is we come to understand that the other person is, therefore, someone who has been willing to live with us and our problems. And from that understanding, then, gratitude.

  2. Randall Avatar
    Randall

    Helpful thoughts about progress vs. satisfaction. Satisfaction and contentment are such important realities; I hope you you have further posts about ‘measuring sticks’.

  3. David E. Rockett Avatar
    David E. Rockett

    Thank you Father. I dearly love (& “profit” from) most all you write for us. I too was married 47-yr last 9 Aug…after 4.5 yrs of high school, AF/college courting…51.5 yrs sweethearts — before Debbie’s passing 11/17/2022 (colorectal cancer).
    In my grieving I’ve thought much about the nature of marriage, and our marriage (no doubt mixed with error). While I do share your aversion to the modern philosophy of progress” — I chafe at the notion there is “no” progress atall, of any kind. Perhaps, rather than progress, “maturity” is a better word for us to use? The unfolding of God’s covenant of redemption seems decidedly a movement in providential history…from immaturity in the Fall of Adam…to maturity in the reconciliation of all things in Christ. Indeed, the Apostle chides those who have remained “Babes” in Christ…rather than moving into adult maturity. Also, I suspect Deb and my marriage at age 52 or even 42 (after 8-kids mostly grown) was more seasoned and mature than when newly married at 22 & 19. Whatever the best word and method of thinking, we must allow for some margin per Paul’s command to Timothy, no?
    “Meditate on these things; give yourself entirely to them, that your progress may be evident to all. Take heed to yourself and to the doctrine. Continue in them, for in doing this you will save both yourself and those who hear you.”
    Thank you again for your labors for us, and any counsel/suggestions you might have for this new widower…per the place & need for suffering, marriage, and the rest of our Journeys together in this life. Lord have mercy on us.

  4. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    David,
    No doubt, I overstate the case in saying “no progress.” There is change. For example, I am now 69 years old. When I got married, I was 22. I have changed a lot (especially my joints!), but, in many ways I am only the man of 69 that I am supposed to me (more or less). Is 69 progress from 22? I just think it’s the wrong question.

    There is a movement towards “all things gathered together in one in Christ Jesus.” But the notion of progress as journey is more apt in describe this. In modern parlance, progress means a movement towards better, higher, faster, wealthier, smarter, etc., with the notion that you are standing on history and accumulating all these things. In many ways, it is a temporal version of the Tower of Babel. It has also produced many modern heresies and is among the most pernicious notions of secularism.

    We are not building towards the End. We are being drawn towards the End. That “process” or “progress” is largely a mystery.

    “The kingdom of God is as if a man should scatter seed on the ground. He sleeps and rises night and day, and the seed sprouts and grows; he knows not how. The earth produces by itself, first the blade, then the ear, then the full grain in the ear.”

    He knows not how.

    What we do, according to the gospel, is that we struggle to keep the commandments of Christ, doing the next good thing. At the end of the day we say, “At most, I am an unprofitable servant.” That we grow, that there is a movement towards the End is a promise and a hope. It is not a project. Modernity is full of projects – and everybody thinks they are a project manager. We are God’s project, not our own.

    May your wife’s memory be eternal! I recommend a blog (fairly new) by a very dear friend, a parishioner, my godson, and beloved of my family. He has been twice-widowed. Most recently, just a year ago.

    The blog is: The Joyful Widower

  5. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    I have been married twice for a total of 39 years. My first wife reposed after 25 years–19 in the Church. The mercy of our Lord was quite evident as she died. Astounding in fact. His Mercy fulfilled and healed our marriage.

    Four years later I met and married an extraordinary woman of deep faith and a joyful heart. We will have our 14th anniversary this year. We were both 60 when we met. Engaged after 3 dates, married after 3 months during which she went through Catechism.

    We have grown personally and together in a way I cannot help but describe as progress: knowing and adapting to each other and knowing our Lord more deeply. Beginning to find out what it means to live In Christ, a little, and at 75 looking toward what it means to die in Christ. We both have experienced that once before. Both the grief and loneliness but also the Joy of Jesus’ Mercy.

    Growth in marriage, which includes faithfulness, is, I believe, a by-product of one’s growth in Christ and His Church. But, He seems to honor marriage in a deep and blessed way beyond what I or my wife can do. He brings the marriage to completion if there is the love and the willingness to do so. That is an indescribable and wonderful Grace.

  6. Kenneth Avatar
    Kenneth

    Thanks so much for these reflections on progress, marriage, and the Christian life. They are a much-needed antidote.
    If progress is “one of the three most dominant ideas of our culture,” I’m just curious what the other two might be. Secularism? Individualism?

  7. Dee of St Herman Avatar
    Dee of St Herman

    My best friend has always been my spouse. Nurturing relationships without imposing one’s will on others, it seems to me, is not something that this culture instills. Kindness is timeless. Gentleness can be life saving. Progess it seems is not a helpful descriptor. However, when I describe my faith, I sometimes describe it in terms of growth but what that means is hard to describe.

  8. Dee of St Herman Avatar
    Dee of St Herman

    Father,
    I’m curious about the picture you chose for this post. It seems you’re on an old road or wide walkway. The timelessness of the place-it’s not modern- and you’re walking upon this path. The image captured suggests the timelessness of the moment-suggesting that one can always be in that moment. Sometimes I think we take the word progress too literally or perhaps too linearly.

  9. Merry Bauman Avatar
    Merry Bauman

    When I married at 19, I expected to stay married, raise a family, and grow old together. That was 56 yrs ago. We were divorced after 14 1/2 yrs and four children (One was stillborn). He left for a much younger woman. My second marriage I was 35, and I married a man with two kids. I raised them all together for 17 yrs, then discovered he had been having an affair for three years and he left me for an older woman. In both, I was unequally yoked, and that I think was the real heart of the problem. I was single for 6 yrs and then I met a wonderful man who I was able to lead to God before his death after surgery – 7 1/2 months after we were married. His loss was devastating to me, because I had finally known a taste of what God intended a marriage to be. A little over a year later, God totally “set me up” with an amazing Orthodox man who had lost his wife – same hospital, same floor, same DATE – three yrs earlier. She had died of complications of something I have and control – diabetes, and he needed open heart surgery – what my husband had died from complications of. I was determined not to ever date again, much less marry. So, to my everlasting gratitude, God had a much better plan for my life than I did! I was not only given the best, and most amazing relationship I have ever experienced in a marriage, but also brought into the faith that I had been seeking most of my life – but did not know it. Over the last soon-to-be 14 yrs, I have been blessed to not only become Orthodox, but to have been married to the most loving, supportive, and caring best friend and husband I have ever known. I was almost 61 when I married him – honestly – after getting engaged after only 3 dates and married after only 3 months. I thank God every day for this marriage, and knowing what growing older (never “old”) together is – going thru the good, bad, ugly, and amazing that each day seems to bring. Marriage is a time of many changes, and so much growth – together and individually. Making God and our faith the center of our marriage is what gives us the strength and the purpose to keep moving forward.
    Glory to God each day for the miracle of each day we are blessed to have together.

  10. Simon Avatar
    Simon

    First a rant and then an observation. Life has absolutely nothing to do with progress. Even scientists who take an entirely reductive approach to molecular biology and who subscribe to evolution understand that successful adaptation has nothing to do with progress and everything to do with selecting optimal solutions to environmental challenges. From that perspective evolution may appear intelligent as it performs parameter optimization of survival functions from a biological solution space. I say that to say that the idea of “progress” is not a scientific concept. It is a concept born among agenda-driven liberal arts professors. The wisdom literature of the Bible talks about living with a “heart of wisdom.” Marriages, friendships, parishes, and the like require love and wisdom not progress. Even when relationships are said to improve what is really happening is that people are learning to act more wisely and lovingly.

    Observation: The monastics haven’t changed their lifestyle in 2000 years. Some, on the outside looking in, might even say they haven’t progressed. Things that make you go “Hmmm.”

  11. Alan Avatar
    Alan

    Dee, thank you for your outstanding comments (12:35). So good!

  12. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Dee,
    It’s me in the picture – my wife was taking the photo. It’s in Oxford, near the Bodleian Library. Shortly after this, I was surrounded by a group of Asian tourists who wanted to take my picture. My wife said it was because I looked like Dumbledore…

  13. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Simon,
    You’re spot on. “Progress,” as a modern mantra, is a distration, and mostly something used to market stuff to us. There are words, or certain things within the Tradition that we could point to and try to make them mean “progress.” But, the word in English, in its present meaning, is quite new. The older meaning is “journey.” I’ve also taken it to be instructive that when a civilization doesn’t, on the whole, have a word for something, it means that the concept is simply not very important to them.

    We could, as Christians, take certain things (like growth in Christ – “from glory to glory,” etc.) and make them do service as a form of “progress.” The problem is that we ourselves have been marinated in modernity’s idea of progress (which comes complete with a theory of history, of economics, etc.) and it tends to distort theology.

  14. Matthew Lyon Avatar
    Matthew Lyon

    Fr. Freeman,

    That’s a great way to frame the question of progress.

    “All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone.” ― Blaise Pascal

    Hesed. Love and loyalty. These kill anxiety for something better than sitting alone with God or your wife.

  15. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    It is all in the pronunciation. Sometime around the end of the 19th century the word progress changed from pro-gress with the accent on the last syllable (which retains a sense of the journey) to pra-gress as some kind of essence of being.
    A good book to read about it is Henry Adams book: “The Degradation of the Democratic Dogma” published in 1919.

  16. Simon Avatar
    Simon

    I think one of the reasons we like the idea of progress is that it leaves us with the illusion we can use our will to exert control. And in many trivial matters, we can get away with thinking that much like when we say “the sun goes down” or “the sky is blue”. It is only true from ‘a certain point of view.’ Reading Romans 6-8 I do not get the impression that the human will has as much freedom as we would like to believe. Galatians also echoes the slavery of the will. So, how do we make progress. We don’t. Freedom comes with Being and we will not be free until we are in full communion with the Being of God. Then we can talk about freedom. Until then I think it behooves us to be very careful about how we speak about freedom. We could be creating unnecessary burdens for ourselves and others. Fr. Stephen’s idea that “We are being drawn towards the End” is exactly how we should think about our salvation, history, all of it.

    This next thought is kind of far out there, but when it comes to the law-like regularities in the universe I tend to wonder if it’s not hypostases all the way down. In other words, we think of our universe as being billiard balls at one scale (classical physics) and sets of probabilities at another scale (quantum physics). I sometimes wonder whether the reduction of the universe to brute-facts, objects and impersonal forces isn’t also part of the illusion created by the constraints on our perspective. If we could see it perhaps we would find that the entire fabric of the universe and all existence is hypostatic in nature. Now wouldn’t that turn everything on its ear.

  17. Matthew Lyon Avatar
    Matthew Lyon

    Fr. Freeman,

    From Orthodox Spirituality (just got the one copy I could find on eBay),

    “If the goal of Christian spirituality is a mystical life of union with God, then the path to it includes the ascent that leads to this peak. As such, this path is different than the peak; yet it is organically connected to it, in the same way as the ascent of a mountain is to the peak.”

  18. Simon Avatar
    Simon

    Matthew Lyon, I like that a whole lot. What’s important in life is our orientation, the direction of our noetic compass. In many ways this is what I think of in terms of repentance. If you are walking away from the peak better ‘turn around’! But what I really like is that whether we are moving away from or toward the peak we are still on the mountain. There is no such thing as being off the mountain. It’s entirely a matter of following our noetic compass north toward the peak.

  19. Dee of St Herman Avatar
    Dee of St Herman

    Simon, I like your use of the compass analogy.

  20. Charles “Lou” Weissing Avatar
    Charles “Lou” Weissing

    Fr. Stephen:

    Your allergy to the myth of “progress” is a hardy perennial in your writings. (Odd how the academic dalliance with “myth” is seldom applied to its wisdom’s own children). But your remarks on inevitable change, or more generally on the organic feel of growth, seem more on point.

    Saying that your marriage “progressed” seems dumb. Saying that it has “changed” sounds trite. Saying it has “grown” is a truth and a mystery.

    As you remind us in these comments, the parables are full of growth. Indeed, the fig that doesn’t grow faces a terrible fate. Paul planted, Apollos watered, but God gives the growth. The admonitions of 1 Jn. used to puzzle me as a young man; now they feel uncomfortably obvious and familiar. (Not progress, that, of change).

    Perhaps your aversion to one concept is rooted in an appreciation of a great reality.

  21. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Charles,
    One strong reason for lying aversion to the myth of progress is because it is a lie, told to us for a purpose that is, in fact, against our best interest.

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